What makes a Robot? And Types of Robots used in research

Robots were invented in the 1950s and since then, they have transformed the way we live. A robot is a machine that has been programmed to perform human tasks with enhanced precision, speed and efficiency. 

Robotics have come a long way, from the first robot used by General Motors to move hot metals in their factories, to the now humanoid robots that are able to mimic human emotions and expressions. Their importance to our improved quality of life cannot be ignored.  

What makes a Robot? And Types of Robots used in research

What makes a robot?

Robots have some key features that enable them interact with objects in their environment:

Sensory perception

A robot is able to detect objects in its surroundings, thereby guiding its movements. It can sense light, proximity, pressure and even sound. Using this information, the robot can move and work safely and with precision. 


Many types of robots are able to move forward, change direction, move up and down and even in reverse. They are also able to lift heavy and light items, pick specific items and offload/drop them. The components of a robot that give it mobility are called actuators while the parts that enable the robot carry out its assigned task are the effectors. An example is the fork lift of a robot operating in a factory; the ‘arm’ of the robot that lifts boxes is the effector. 


The backbone of robotics is the ability of a robot to use the data collected from its sensory receptors and use logic to respond appropriately. A robotic arm, for example, is able to detect an item, pick it up and package it. This logic is programmed into the robot by its manufacturer and gives the robot is autonomy and ability to make independent decisions.


A robot requires a power source in order to operate. The power source may be external or an internal battery pack. The energy derived from this power source is used to keep the central processing unit running and also powers the robot’s movements. 

Types of robots used in research 

There are many types of robots developed so far. The earliest kind were pre-programmed robots, which perform single and simple tasks continuously. Autonomous robots are another type – they operate independently and make logical decisions based on their environment. 

Teleoperated robots are operated remotely by humans and are therefore, semi-autonomous. Augmenting robots are connected to a human and enhance human movement, for example, a robotic prosthetic limb. Humanoid robots are human-like in resemblance and can perform activities such as running and jumping. 

Applications of robotics in research 

Research fields have benefitted greatly from the use of robotics. A robot is able to perform tasks faster, more efficiently and with greater precision than a human being. Therefore, results of research processes incorporating robotics are more reproducible, more precise and with fewer errors.


Miners often work in dangerous environments. Risks of flooding, mine collapses and exposure to toxic material are some of the dangers they face daily. 

An unmanned robot can be deployed into these often dark mines and using its light fixtures and an attached camera, it can take photos of its environment. The robot can also use its sensors to analyze the material in the mines and determine their mineral composition. Additionally, a robotic arm can be deployed to take a sample of the mineral in question.

The use of research robotics in this case is exponentially more beneficial than using a human being to navigate and explore mines. 

Outer Space Exploration

Life outside planet Earth has remained a mystery, save for a few human expeditions to the moon. Technology advances, and in particular, the expansion of robotics, have made outer space exploration a reality for many scientists.

Robots have been deployed to Mars and other planets to investigate the conditions there. Robotics have enabled scientists gather data such as images, temperatures and presence/absence of water and oxygen. The robot is able to gather the information and transmit it back to earth in real time. 

Robotic arms have also been used to install and repair machines in the Space Station, allowing scientists to remain up-to-date, while preserving human life. 

Healthcare Research 

Healthcare is a dynamic industry facing a variety of challenges, such as a shortage of healthcare workers, untimely responses to situations and the uprising of new pathogens. Robotics has been introduced into human health research, with the hope of advancing knowledge and improving health outcomes. 

Research laboratories often have to work with lots of samples, sometimes with samples that are biologically hazardous. The use of robotics in this environment means that a robot can work on multiple samples at one go, while eliminating the risk of exposure usually faced by a laboratory technician. The data from this research will also require less manipulation because if it functions correctly, the robotic arm is unlikely to cause errors. 

Research robotics are also used in the field of medical imaging and diagnostics; a miniature robot is deployed into the body and using an attached camera, it takes 3D images of the environment. This can enable a researcher better determine the type and extent of disease in the organ. This knowledge can also guide the physician on personalized treatment for the patient.

Nanotechnology, which is the use of molecular-sized materials in technology, is already at play in many health research institutions. Researchers are currently working to create nanobots, which will be nano-sized robots that can be introduced into the human body and using their sensors, detect cancer and other chronic conditions. 

Recovery and Rehabilitation

A robot is able to observe and record tasks at length. Robotics are therefore being used to monitor the recovery of brain injury patients and better determine their outcomes. 

Robotics in sensory motor therapy can record a patient’s response to various stimuli and therefore, enables mapping of their brain function. Robots continue to shed light on the brain and its neural pathways. This is information that was previously undiscovered, due to the intricate nature of the brain, and is being used to develop therapies for neurological disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease. 

Underwater Research

The ocean as an ecosystem remains largely unexplored, due to its vastness and depth. The human body is unable to survive the extreme environment found on the ocean bed but thanks to robotics, scientists have a better understanding of ocean life. 

Autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs) are robots that are programmed to dive down hundreds of meters to the ocean bed and maneuver around using SONAR (sound navigation and ranging). The robot takes surveillance photos and even collect samples of marine life. It then relays the information collected to the vessel above. 

Robotics have enabled rescue and recovery efforts in the sea, mapping of the ocean bed and exploration of marine sea life.


The use of robots has augmented and increased research outcomes and has created an avenue through which scientists can develop quick and affordable solutions to current human challenges. With advances in artificial intelligence, bioengineering and mechanical engineering, the possibilities in research robotics are endless. 


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